Previous Section Index Home Page

It was worrying that the Committee's report detected no evidence that tuition fees at their current levels had driven up quality on campus. That is not surprising, given that fees hardly vary across the higher education sector, and therefore give students little incentive to look for value for money among institutions. It would appear that some universities are slightly short-changing students, so I agree with the Committee's recommendation
10 Dec 2009 : Column 557
that the fees review should involve the commissioning of independent research on the impact of a higher cap on course quality. Neither the Government nor universities should expect students to pay thousands of pounds more for their degree if teaching and course content remain exactly the same.

As I have hinted today, and as I said during last week's debate, I am not completely satisfied that universities have justified the current level of tuition fees. As I have travelled around the country while shadowing the HE brief, I have felt that some students were being short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at some universities. The fees have raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement in the student experience over the past five or six years.

Although comprehensive figures on student debt are still unavailable for the most recent intake, the figures that have been provided make sober reading. A recent survey estimated that students who commenced their studies in 2006-07 could expect to owe an average of £17,500 on graduation, while those starting in 2007-08 could see their average debt increasing to £21,500. Of course, medical students' debts are much higher, so I say again that before the Government consider saddling our young people with even more debt, it will be imperative for the fees review to justify how the existing fee money has been spent to improve the student experience.

Ensuring that students have access to robust and comparable information about what they can expect from their time at university must be at the heart of proposals coming out of the review. It is only right that students, as fee-paying customers, receive the best and most accessible advice and guidance that universities can offer, although of course that is if students are lucky enough to secure the funding to which they are entitled in the first place.

Professor Hopkin's report into the student loan fiasco found "conspicuous failures" in the current system that led to universities shelling out hundreds of thousands of pounds in emergency funds to students left without money. The report found that the processing system had faced problems due to lost documents, equipment failures and difficulties with the online application system. Only 5 per cent. of phone calls were answered at peak time. The Minister knows what a monumental cock-up this was by the Government. Financial support is specifically targeted to help those who need it most, and it is exactly those people who have been so badly let down by the fiasco. Indeed, some have now left university and many more are still suffering. Many families have been counting the pennies this year, and the last thing that they needed was to have to fork out extra funds thanks to Government and Student Loans Company incompetence.

I shall give the House a couple of real examples of the difficulties that families have faced. One student says:

10 Dec 2009 : Column 558

This crisis is a real blow to the widening of participation. Here is another example:

I can confirm that she is not the only one. I was recently at a Wantage hall founder's dinner at my university, the university of Reading, and I was fortunate enough to talk at length to a number of students. Many had not received the money to which they were entitled and were in desperate financial trouble. One female student told me that unless she could find £700 by Christmas, she would have to leave.

We could go into almost any university and, with very little or no effort, find the same story, demonstrating the size of the cock-up. In November, 176,000 students had still not received the financial support that they were promised and to which they were entitled.

Mr. Willis: May I say what a powerful case the hon. Gentleman is making about what is an absolute crisis? Does he agree that, in summing up, it would be useful if the Minister could guarantee that the second tranche of Student Loans Company grants will be paid on 28 January? Without it, literally tens, if not hundreds or thousands of students will simply have to leave university at that point.

Mr. Wilson: That is exactly the message that I have received from students, and I hope that the Minister will directly address that question when he sums up. I know that the Front-Benchers are anxious to speak, and I shall try to finish in a couple of minutes if they will all bear with me.

A recent report by Demos included comments and proposals on the introduction of a civic corps-it would be paid for by increasing the rate of interest that university graduates pay on their loan-to carry out community service. I fully appreciate that our young and unemployed people need real action to help them to turn their lives around, and volunteering in the community can be a way of raising self-esteem and helping people to develop important soft skills, such as teamwork, while doing something positive for the local area. Indeed, such initiatives sit very well with my party's plans to get Britain working and, in particular, our "Work Together" initiatives, which involve volunteering in local communities.

But where have those comments come from? Are we not in the middle of an independent fees review? Anyone making such comments is surely pre-judging the outcome of the fees review, so, unless I have misunderstood the Minister or he has been misquoted, the situation makes no sense at all. I would genuinely find it helpful if he dealt with the issue, because, if he did make those comments in the middle of the fees review, he has been very unhelpful.

The Committee's report looked at community colleges, and, as the Minister and others will know, I have been passionate about them for some time. The report looked at credits, which, for the purposes of widening participation,
10 Dec 2009 : Column 559
are incredibly important to the system in this country, because they enable people to drop in and out of study as their lives dictate. I do not see why we in the UK, given our progressive sector, should not be able to do something that is comparable in flexibility to the US community college system. I acknowledge that the Government have made moves in that direction by broadening foundation degrees. However, much more could be done.

The Select Committee report is right to say that

That is absolutely right. I will not go through the other interesting aspects of the community college system, but they are mentioned in the Select Committee's report and I endorse them.

As the Minister knows, this is an opportunity to make the real changes that the sector needs. Now is the time for fresh and innovative thinking. I thank the Select Committee for its report and for making a thought-provoking contribution to what will be an interesting but very intense debate over the weeks, months and years to come.

2.51 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): This has been an excellent debate, although I am not sure that I want to put a classification on it. I enjoyed the thoughtful and good-natured contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I also enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who talked about his journey across the Pennines to Hull; I was reminded of my own journey across the Severn estuary, with the valleys-boy accent that I had at the time, to the strange world of Bristol university, where I met different classes of people whom I had never come across before.

This debate shows Parliament at its best, because it is based on a Select Committee report that is an example of Parliament at its best. During my first two and a half years as a Member, I thoroughly enjoyed serving on the Committee that preceded the now former Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Select Committee reports make an important contribution. I wish that we had more opportunities such as this to debate the thorough research and evidence-based reports that Select Committees produce.

Yesterday's pre-Budget report provides a context, and it has already been mentioned by a couple of speakers. On page 110, among a series of bullet points covering cuts in IT, the criminal justice system, residential care and rail franchises, is tucked away a reference to anticipated cuts in higher education:

The Minister has already been asked to provide several bits of information when he sums up; I hope that he will clarify what that £600 million-worth of cuts means. I am thinking particularly of student support, which has been on a rollercoaster in the past 12 years. Grants
10 Dec 2009 : Column 560
were first abolished, then reintroduced. Provision was then extended, but clawed back 12 months ago. I hope that there will not be a further rollercoaster ride for students.

Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worst possible things would be if students had gone to university with a particular profile of grants and loans on offer, and then found that those were being withdrawn and that their legitimate expectations were not being met?

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Students in their third year may already have a completely different financial scenario from what prevailed when they applied; not only that, but students from the same families who are assessed on family income may also experience entirely different outcomes. Brothers and sisters doing the same thing may have different grants or eligibility for maintenance loans.

Will the Minister also clarify what the cuts in science and research will be? The Chancellor said in yesterday's pre-Budget report that science, innovation and a low-carbon economy were the way forward for this country, and Lord Mandelson has said much the same. It would be perverse if all that were now undermined by budget cuts.

The hon. Member for Reading, East mentioned the report on the Student Loans Company by Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, which came out on 8 December. It is a particularly damning report, and it is strange that there has been no sign of contrition on the part of the directors of the Student Loans Company. I remind the House that these people actually paid themselves a bonus last year, when they should have been preparing for their new responsibilities for this year. Will the Minister clarify his and his Department's responsibilities in this respect? Will he undertake, at least between now and the election-I am not necessarily predicting what will happen then-to follow closely the progress of the directors of the Student Loans Company to ensure that we do not have a repeat of this fiasco and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned, further grants are paid on time?

Mr. Rob Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the president of the National Union of Students that heads should roll at the Student Loans Company?

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In fact, I can agree with myself about that, because I said the same thing at the same time as Wes Streeting. Liberal Democrats and the NUS were in complete agreement on that matter.

The Select Committee report is wide-ranging, and we could have spent all afternoon discussing different aspects of it. Indeed, annexe 2 lists a whole raft of things that the Committee did not have time to look at in detail, notably the contribution of further education, the delivery of higher education, and postgraduate study. I hope that the successor Committee will find time to look at those important, valuable areas.

I want to focus on two aspects covered in the report-admissions and resources-and then the three areas of concern that it identified. First, on admissions, I think that widening participation in higher education is now,
10 Dec 2009 : Column 561
it is pleasing to note, pretty much common ground between those on the three Front Benches. We have had enough debates with each other to know that although we may disagree on some of the policies, we are at least personally committed to ensuring that widening participation is very much on the political agenda. I welcome that common commitment, because we know that there is still a stark social divide in terms of who goes to university. We can have a debate about the absolute number of people who go to university, but who goes is still very much an area for legitimate concern.

The subtext of fair access to higher education is also addressed in the report. That is incredibly important. I have often heard vice-chancellors of Russell group or 1994 group universities say that fair access is not important in volume terms. Of course, with 1 million undergraduates at university, fair access probably can be seen as not that important. However, in terms of what happens to people who go to our research-intensive universities later on in life, and whether they become Members of this place or leading members of the media, the judiciary or other leading professions, it certainly matters who gets an opportunity to access those universities. It is absolutely right that the Committee considered that, and all politicians should ensure that it stays on the agenda. Contextual information about the applicant is extremely important. I agree with the Committee when it says that the state is entitled to take a view on fair access to our universities even if that can be perceived as overriding institutional autonomy.

Information, advice and guidance to university applicants is very important in ensuring that people are well prepared for making their application and know what is expected of them. That is not always clear. It is tragic to hear sixth formers or people in FE colleges say, "I wanted to study this, but I've only now discovered that I needed to persevere with physics or to have done better in maths." Good information about what is needed to apply to all universities, but particularly those that are perceived as research-intensive, is absolutely vital. Universities do a lot of good work on that in the context of outreach. The university of which I am an alumnus and which I represent in Parliament-Bristol university-has the ChemLabS initiative whereby academics go out to local schools to enthuse people about chemistry, as well as inviting teachers and lab technicians into the university to update them on how to teach a practical lesson by bringing chemistry to life and making it exciting for teenage students. As the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, the work that staff do in that respect, as well as their research work, ought to be recognised by their employers.

School relationships can also make an incredibly important contribution. The Committee's report refers to the review by Professor Steven Schwartz, which has still not been fully implemented across the sector. In my view, the unfinished business of the Schwarz review is particularly on post-qualification application. It is absurd that we still have a school system designed in 1870 with a term structure based on having young people available to do agricultural work in the summer. We all know that the future of our economy does not depend on that. It will be knowledge-based, and universities need more time to consider the field of applicants. Individuals also
10 Dec 2009 : Column 562
need time, once they know how they have done at school or college, to decide where to apply to. I hope that post-qualification application will be seriously considered in future.

On resources, I do not want to have the usual row that the Minister and I have about tuition fees, but I agree with the first conclusion in the Committee's report that it is a shame that the fees review is not concluding this year so that we can debate it thoroughly before the general election. The report recommends a national bursary scheme, which I certainly support. It is absurd that twin brothers-an academic Jedward, perhaps-going to different universities such as Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin, but with exactly the same family circumstances, get different bursary support. Information about bursaries is patchy, and since the Committee's report Professor Claire Callender has produced a report about the difficulty that many young people have in navigating their way through the system.

The Committee's report highlighted three areas of concern, and many contributors have mentioned them. The first was standards. I covered A-level results day for my party both this year and two years ago, and I know that there is a debate about standards every single year. In my role I meet many admissions tutors, who all say that A-levels are not what they used to be and students are not as well prepared as they used to be. However, as has been recognised in the debate, the same admissions tutors and academic departments shy away from any discussion about the number of students who go on to get a 2:1 or a first in their degree course. When I graduated from Bristol university in history 21 years ago, nobody in my peer group got a first, and it was not because we were all stupid. Not that many got a 2:1, either. Now it is quite different, so the Committee was right that we must have a debate about academic standards, and universities should not be afraid of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to the new chief executive of the QAA, Anthony McClaran, whom many of us know from his UCAS days. I was at the same meeting as him last week and met him again the next day, and he certainly takes seriously the issue of standards raised in the Select Committee's report.

Many contributors to the debate have mentioned the quality of teaching. Students have a right to know what experience they are going to get when they go to university. It does not necessarily follow that a world-class research-based professor will be the best teacher, but students ought to know how much contact they are likely to have with that person and how much of their course is likely to be taught or monitored by a PhD or post-doctoral member of the department.

Consistency was an area of concern mentioned in the Committee's report, which brings me back to my earlier point about the need for information for applicants so that they know what to expect and can plan their lives around course expectations. That is particularly important for people with difficult family structures who are trying to access university.

Next Section Index Home Page